French onion soup teleports me back to my childhood. My mother, being an impressive home cook, used to make it for my brother and me on chilly winter days. The gratinée of bread and cheese floating on top of that rich broth made it endlessly kid-friendly. It also mercifully (for her, I’m sure) required very few ingredients. She would present them to us in little pot-bellied ramekins nearly bubbling over with brûlée'd cheese. Now, I’m a private chef—and French onion soup is a go-to for comfort food for any crowd.
The satisfying soup isn’t arduous to make, either: You’re going to need lots of onions and some time to wait around. That’s it.
Here's how to make French onion soup without a recipe:
Starting the soup.
You're going to need onions. Lots and lots of thinly sliced. Start with 3 small or 2 large sweet Vidalia onions. If you are cooking for 6-8 people, you're going to want to up this to 4 or 5. Sweet onions are ideal for this dish, but, in a pinch, regular white, red, or a mix will do. Start by cook these onions slowly in a heavy-bottomed pot. Sweat them in butter and oil with some thyme until they've softened, lightly colored. and your kitchen smells amazing.
Remember: Caramelization means flavor. Once you dive in past the bread barrier, this soup is all broth and onions, so take your time building a delicious base. Once your onions soften, you can crank it up a notch by seasoning them with a healthy amount of salt, a pinch of sugar, and turn the heat up a bit. The sugar will aid the caramelization process. Let this all go until your onions turn a beautiful golden brown. If you see them coloring unevenly, add a splash of water and stir them around a bit.
When your onions are all golden, sprinkle in a couple of tablespoons of flour, and stir for a few minutes. You want your flour to mix with the butter and oil to create a liaison—a thickening aid that will eventually give your soup some body, and keep it from being too thin. This is stick to your bones food! Then, add a splash of white wine (the alcohol will cook off) and some (hot!) stock. If you are going for authenticity, I would tell you to add beef broth, scraping the bottom and stirring carefully. However, you can use whatever you like. Don't eat beef? Use chicken stock. Vegetarian? An unctuous umami-laden mushroom stock works beautifully here, too.
Let it simmer.
At this point you can cover your pot partially and walk away for 30 minutes. The gentle simmering will bring everything together for you. Be sure to check on it once and a while, and stir occasionally to make sure nothing is burning on the bottom. When your 30 minutes are up, you're ready to lade them into bowl and put on the finishing touches.
The undisputed best part of a bowl of French onion soup is the crust. Have stale French bread? Great! Wanna use that chunk of sourdough from the farmer’s market you forgot about? Perfection. Don't have stale bread? No sweat, just slice and dry some out in the oven at a low temperature until your bread isn't squishy anymore. Try to slice your bread to fit on top of your oven-proof bowl or ramekin. It should float on top and fit snugly to the edges.
Not only can you vary the bread you use, but the cheese, too. The classic combination is grated Parmesan and Gruyère. You can also use Swiss, gouda, Pecorino—as long as it melts nicely and isn't too pungent. Don’t use something stinky like brie or camembert here, which will distract away from the soup.
Now all that's left is to broil your crust until the cheese gets bubbly and brown. My last and final bit of advice is to wait until that lid of hot lava cheese cools slightly. You’ll thank yourself later.
And pssst—you can grab those cute Enamel Milk Pans, and lots of the other props featured above, in our Shop:
Enamel Milk Pan
Food52 x Staub Round Cocotte
Do you have any questions about how to make French onion soup? Let us know in the comments.